Kathy's Story - By Dick Vogel, Founder, Kathy's House (1931-2014)
A young wife and mother of three small daughters, Kathy was diagnosed in the spring of 1999 with Burkitt's lymphoma, a form of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. She underwent chemotherapy and it looked as though there might be hope. But on Thanksgiving Day she told her family the cancer had returned.
More chemotherapy followed, then a bone marrow transplant from a perfect match, her oldest sister Susan. But by then the cancer had grown stronger and her body was weaker. She improved a little, but it came back. She was only out of the hospital less than a month when the cancer returned. Doctors told her that there was nothing more that could be done, as non-Hodgkin's lymphoma tends to hide from chemotherapy and radiation. For her husband, Ken, and the extended family, there was nothing left but to retreat and wait for her to die.
In June 2000, after fighting a yearlong battle against a tenacious and rare form of cancer, 39-year-old Kathy, wife and mother of three young girls, found out that the cancer would win. She died 7:40am on July 4, 2000.
Kathy was an outstanding person. She wanted to do something for other cancer families. Before her death, one of her wishes was that her family open a place to provide assistance and comfort to out-of-area patients and families as loved ones underwent treatment in the Milwaukee area. As her parents, Judy and I began working on Kathy's House shortly after her death. Through fund-raisers, donations and one year of hard work, Kathy's House opened in the summer of 2001 at 600 N. 103rd Street and has been fulfilling her wish ever since.
Angels Here On Earth
Arriving at Froedtert Hospital's Cancer Center to prepare Kathy for her bone marrow transplant was an incredible experience. Our family witnessed first-hand the angels' right in our back yard whose special care provides for those patients awaiting or receiving transplants. Those nurses and doctors give so much of themselves to improve their patients' physical and mental health.
Kathy was fortunate to have been assigned a larger room, which was needed to accommodate her many visitors. The generosity and compassion, long a part of Kathy's life, fueled her determination to be the perfect hostess. There were no bounds to her interest in the well-being of all without exclusion.
This attitude of positive thinking quickly made Kathy a favorite among all staff since she never expressed self-pity or anger at her failing health. Unfortunately many patients had few visitors to help support their journey and nurses lamented the lack of a Milwaukee area Hospital Hospitality House to lodge and support families of adult patients.
Kathy had expressed interest in helping other cancer patients and their families, when health permitted. The seed was planted.
When Kathy's blood counts improved, she was allowed to go home to her family after months of treatments. The pain soon returned and a return to the Froedtert & Medical College Bone Marrow Transplant (BMT) Unit for more chemo. Our family and her friends filled Kathy's room and she was again the loving hostess.
The determination held by Kathy to help others was again discussed with nurses and Kathy's doctor who urged us to establish a hospital house to honor her life. A fund to help other cancer families was established with the Medical College of Wisconsin as suggested by then President Michael Bolger.
During Kathy's final weeks in Palliative Care, this inpatient unit joined the BMT nurses in making Kathy as comfortable as possible. This end of life team was caring and able to provide comfort. Many books were shared and read by family members. The role of angels guiding the patient was retold many times. We learned the foot of the bed was off limits to guests since that was where the angels gathered.
Kathy's nurses expected her death on July 1, 2000, but she requested the angels delay since that day was the birthday of her eldest daughter Hailey and would spoil the celebration. The fourth was the end of her journey and was a beautiful sunny holiday.
After concluding good-byes, Kathy obliged her sisters with a sign that all was well in heaven and she had made the trip OK with a rainbow between the only two clouds in the sky.
Many friends and family members who cared for Kathy contributed generously to Kathy's Fund and at Mike Bolger's suggestion we gathered many cancer centered groups to determine how best the fund might help. After touring the Transplant House in Rochester MN, which supports the Mayo Clinic, the idea of opening a home away from home for hospital patients and their caregivers who travel to Milwaukee area hospitals for treatment was urged.
My wife Judy and I attended the annual conference of the National Association of Hospital Hospitality Houses in September. There were over 200 houses nationally and most were in attendance. After learning of our desire to open a house in Milwaukee, we were soon immersed in helpful guidance and compassion. Kathy's House opened at 600 N 103rd Street in Wauwatosa on July 4, 2001.
Kathy's Farewell by Susan Vogel
Kathy was most grateful for the many cards and letters she received in her final days at the hospital, the mail she received was a highlight. One of the things she requested was that we go through all the cards and letters that were sent to her and share what people wrote with her daughters. Her exact words were, "find the ones where people say good stuff about me."
In reading those cards and letters and in reading her journal she began early in her diagnosis, I was immediately struck by the common themes.
Over and over people spoke of her kindness, generosity and true compassion. She was friendly to everyone, loving and caring to those close to her and tolerant and forgiving of people's quirks and shortcomings. So many friends wrote that they learned from her, and that she made them better people. Kathy had a warm smile and an infectious giggle. She loved having a good time and being surrounded by people. Even while terribly sick in the hospital, our "Chatty Kathy" loved having visitors and they buoyed her spirits. At one point the nurses threatened to bring in bleachers, there were so many people coming and going. And although she was the one feeling lousy, she always made everyone else feel better.
During her first remission, she talked of trying to find a way to help other cancer patients as she had been helped. She had a "Book about Mom" where she wrote "I hope I have enough health to continue to lead an active life where I can make a difference in your lives and others who've struggled as I have."
That remission was short-lived and she needed to focus on her own battle. Our father pledged to start a fund in her name. It was her wish that it be called the Kathy Vogel Kuettner fund and she wanted its focus to be the support of cancer patients and their families, particularly other adults like her with young children.
Kathy picked her time to leave this earth with her children in mind. She hung in there for Hailey's birthday and she picked a day that would have meaning for the kids. Another child in our family observed prior to Kathy's passing that the fourth of July would be a good day for her to go to heaven, because that is when we celebrate our country's freedom and she would be free too. Kathy loved the fourth of July and would always have the whole family over to watch the fireworks.
A few days after learning the cancer was back, there was a rainstorm followed by a beautiful full spectrum double rainbow. Karen, Laura and Heidi saw it driving back from the hospital. Joan took a picture of it from her driveway and Ken and other friends saw it too. It was dubbed "Kathy's rainbow."
On her next visit, Karen told Kathy of the rainbow and how everyone thought it was her rainbow. It was a sign that she was going to a better place. She asked Kathy to give us a sign once she was gone that everything was OK.
On July 4th, just a couple of hours after Kathy passed away, Karen and Pete were driving home. It was a beautiful sunny day - not a drop of rain. They looked up, and in the middles of a huge bunch of clouds was a bright blue opening of a rainbow pointing down at them.
We are sure it was Kathy, thoughtfully reassuring us that everything was indeed OK.